St. George and the Dragons

St. George , patron saint of England is celebrated on 23rd April. He seems a strange choice for English folk being of Syrian origin and born of a Greek father and a Syrian mother. He was a Roman soldier and was martyred for his Christianity in 303 AD at a time in the Roman world when Christians were being viciously persecuted. It was much later,  in the medieval period, that he became a much loved  figure of romance, rescuing princesses  and fighting dragons, an  archetypal  Arthurian chivalric knight in fact.

Saint George vs the Dragon

He featured as one of Jacobus de Voragine’s most popular   Golden Legends, compiled around 1260 AD  and a ”best seller” second only to the Bible as printed  by Caxton in 1483. As for the dragons , it was the great Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges who noted that most cultures created stories about dragons and  monsters for their heroes to slay. He believed that psychologically , socially and creatively we all need dragons to fight and consequently we all need dragon slayers to fight our battles for us . The reasons that a civilisation or individual chooses one monster or hero over another can reveal much about  the character  of   that culture or person.

George can be seen in action during the folk dramas known as mummers’ plays which take place across Britain, usually at Christmas,  but sometimes at Easter, and are very loosely based on the legend of St. George.

otterbourne-mummers-hampshire-uk-december-homer-sykes-bxg22a
Mummers at Otter borne in Hampshire just after Christmas 2014

 

The plays were originally mimed , hence mummers, and all the players were in disguise and hence known as Guisers. The main characters usually included, in addition to St. George, a Captain Slasher, the King of Egypt, a Turkish knight, a doctor and several soldiers who challenge St George and come to  sticky ends only to be revived by the doctor! The meaning of all this is just a bit hazey but seems to imply the death of the old  year and the need to encourage the resurgence of the  young  and vigorous new year. Links here to St. George’s commemoration date on 23rd April when the new growth is bursting though in the countryside and we see  all sorts of green-man type ceremonies taking place, England’s green and pleasant land says thank you to its patron saint for returning the flowers and the crops.

So George our hero is a quintessential Arthurian romantic knight  chivalrous but tough with connotations of ancient vegetation gods who fight off the dark days of winter to help the resurgent green men to flourish?

Does this also explain our dragons ? There is a very common mythological motif of the serpent or dragon who guards a  spring or some other desirable object and thus prevents access to it.  Ancient texts of India, Greece and Scandinavia, speak of the thunder-gods whose thunderstorms released torrents of water to feed the parched land, having struggled with the monsters that blocked the flows. We can read of Zeus and Typhaon the hundred headed serpent , recounted by Hesiod in his Theogeny ,  or Apollo killing the python at Delphi to release the spring waters, Thor wounding  the Mithgard serpent and later Hercules taking on the Hydra as one of his herculean tasks.

In Lithuania Perkunas’ first spring thunderclap is said to ‘unlock the earth’ from its frozen winter state whilst in ancient Greece the Hydra’s heads were said to be prolific water springs that kept bursting forth and flooding the land until Hercules tamed the flows.

Germanic and Celtic heroes also slay the dragons , Sigurd wins the fair Brynhild by rescuing her from a dragon  , Finn MacCool fights many  serpent-like monsters rather like Hercules, but it is the dragons themselves that loom largest in the Celtic tales. The Arthurian legend that gives us George’s romantic image also provides us with the most famous dragon of the British isles, the red dragon Symbol of Wales. Early in the legend of Arthur we meet Merlin as just a boy, albeit a very talented boy, he informs Vortigern of the reason for his persistently collapsing castle , two dragons are fighting deep below. The symbolic incarnation of the Anglo-Saxon v Ancient British conflict, a white dragon and a red one. The red dragon has henceforward became the symbol of Wales being paraded proudly on their flag.

welsh flag

 

In dark- age Briton therefore we meet Anglo- Saxon heroes who  slayed dragons, the heraldic animals of the occupied Celtic British people with whom they were in conflict for many centuries.

Perhaps the most renowned of Anglo-Saxon heroes is Beowulf who defeated Grendel and thereby became leader of his people , in his dotage after many years of heroic daring do,  Beowulf meets the fire breathing dragon and defeats it  as his final act of  heroism. The epic poem Beowulf gives us an insight into the hero culture of the Germanic tribes, this is an exert from Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation from Anglo-Saxon.

For fifty years I ruled this nation . No King of any neighbouring clan would dare face me with troops, none had the power to intimidate me. I took what came , cared for and stood by things in my keeping, never fermented quarrels, never swore to a lie. All this consoles me doomed as I am and sickening for death, because of my right ways.

Beowulf has slain the dragon but is himself dying from his wounds, he has ruled his people for fifty years and they have been free of conflict because his reputation as a hero has kept other contenders at bay. Now he is dying and his people will face war and hardship once again. The reality of life for the northern early medieval tribes was brutally simple, tribes without a notorious warrior king were open to attack. The winning of a heroic reputation  by a tribal leader would protect their people , whilst the hero lived none would quarrel   but death would bring eager vultures to pick the bones of the bereft tribe.

Heroes needed to fight dragons both to release needed resources but also to build a reputation that would act as an intangible force , a marketing brand of notoriety to keep likely attackers from trying their luck.

So why St. George?

He was elevated to patron saint status by Edward the Third (1312-1377) , a seriously warmongering monarch of the Plantagenet line. St. George had become legendary as a protector of soldiers during the crusades  both because  of his career as a  soldier  himself and also because of his remarkably courageous martyrdom . As a rallying  cry during the 100 years war against France (instigated by Edward) , known to us best  in Shakespeares’  Henry the 5th, ……. cry God for Harry, England and St. George,  had both reputation and sanctity on its side. George as a patron saint is free of trappings , he is not local like St Thomas a Becket or linked to any profession or English legend so in effect had no axe to grind.  George’s  dragon fighting depictions  can be transposed by medieval minds  to form the earthly manifestation  of the archangel  St. Michael ,also often depicted fighting a dragon, making him a doubly valorous and protective symbol.

st michaelSt. Michael.

England certainly needed a hero , notwithstanding a hundred years of war with France it also had to contend with the  appearance of  the black plague in 1348 , any superhuman intercession with the angels and God would be most welcome at the time. George’s grim beginnings as a patron saint perhaps explain why we have no party or day off work to celebrate him. The 23rd of April is allegedly the date of his martyrdom ,which in itself was a pretty grim affair and no pretence for a party,  but poor old George also has the reformation , the seesawing from Protestant to Catholic of the Tudor dynasty, plus good old  Oliver Cromwell,  to contend with.  All these historica  party- poopers combined  to put the muckers on any excuse for a good old knees-up  for the English.

Still , fighting dragons,   as Borges intimated can be an individual affair so each of us can feel free to slay our own personal dragons on St. Georges day just tilt at your own windmills and rescue your own maidens whatever and  wherever they might be.

Eat cake. drink ale, dance around a bit, preferably with bells on  and pick some flowers .

Happy St. George’s Day to all.

 

 

APRIL FOOLS

April has begun with the traditional fooling around that is April Fool’s day but why is April a good time to be foolish and play tricks on each other?

We have passed the Spring Equinox and now the days are lengthening, day is winning the battle over night and summer is winning the battle over winter, Persephone has returned from the underworld and  it is a time of resurrection and renewal as well as fertility and rebirth. April is also ‘the cruelest month’ as TS Eliot recalled, although the spring is bringing beauty in the form of flowers and sunshine it can also be harsh  in the form of April showers and strong winds that can batter those new leaves and tear the fragile blossoms from the delicate flowers. It is a time when we have to give up our cosy fires and warm fleeces and venture forth to take up new challenges casting our clouts before us as we go.  The saying ne’re cast a clout till may be out refers to the taking off of the winter layers as the may blossom or hawthorn starts to appear on the bushes towards the middle of April.

We humans therefore have to cope with many changes at this time of year and mythologically this has been personified by using a tricky story-myth to illustrate the problems. Mythological tricksters, of which there are many , help to bring about change often enabling this by taking on a disguise of some sort and thus masquerading in order to make someone look foolish. They also personified illness and misfortune and were thus a means by which to explain the  inexplicable , pagan people could blame the loss of a child or the onset of an illness on the harmful spirits or tricky demons that lived among them. Shakespeare’s Puckpuck is one of these,  here he is being very tricky in a Midsummer night’s Dream .

And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In very likeness of a roasted crab

and when she drinks , against her lips I bob

and on her withered dewlap pour the ale .

The wisest aunt telling the saddest tale

Sometimes for a three foot stool  mistakes me,

then slip I from her bum, down topples she….

Puck , also known as Robin Goodfellow appears in many folktales of trickery throughout medieval Britain, he is a hobgoblin one of the faery fraternity but other tricksters come from a much more elevated status, that of the gods. Hermes, Eros, Loki were all tricksters in their way. Hermes( Mercury)  the messenger of the gods , was lord of boundaries and hence change , a master of deception and revered as the god of thieves , originally thought to be a snake god,  which fits his slippery and mercurial nature. Eros (Cupid) god of love ,tricked many a fair maid with his arrows  , he was a wild boy showing no respect for age or status, flying around on his golden wings shooting arrows at random and wantonly setting hearts on fire , just the thing for a crazy April fools day romance.

Loki,  Norse god of fire and chaos

lokiseen here played by the lovely Tom Hiddleston in the film Thor, was the supreme trickster. He managed to bring about the death of Baldur the beautiful summer god  by tricking the blind god Hodur into firing an arrow made of mistletoe at the beautiful boy. Mistletoe was the only thing in the whole of creation that had not promised not to hurt the young god. The gods of Asgard , home of the Norse gods amused themselves by hurling sticks and stones at Baldur and watching them bounce from his body unscathed . Only mistletoe was his nemesis , the little plant had been considered too weak and lowly to need to take the vow of protection demanded of all things by Baldur’s mother Frigga . Hence Baldur the summer god died at the hands of a winter fruit and change was upon the gods of Asgard taking them one step closer to their eventual demise at Ragnarok.

The trickiest trick of all time in the mythological world has to be  that played by Odysseus on the Trojans , the supreme practical joke  that was  The Trojan horse  .

trojan-horse-2 The unsuspecting Trojans pulled the horse into Troy only to be surprised later by a belly-full of Greek soldiers who unfortunately for Troy very much got the last laugh. Odysseus was not a god but a hero , or was he ? Tricksters tend not to be as respected and admired as the heroes,  Odysseus was not hero- worshipped like Achilles , Hermes was not  respected like Apollo and Loki was not revered like Thor. Tricksters were all cunning and crafty, they lived by their wits and not their brawn and hence were considered less manly and just a bit untrustworthy , certainly not noble and self-sacrificing like the archetypal heroes. They also tended to cross-dress quite a bit, putting on female garb in order to fool someone and  often transforming themselves into beasts of various kinds, not the actions of a manly hero at all!

But we have digressed into trickery in general and left April far behind. Why April in particular? Because it is a month of cruelty and change but also a time to party and masquerade and a time when the thoughts of all young things turn to love and fertility.    Disguise and masquerade help to make a party go with a swing as identities are hidden and social restrictions disappear within the protection afforded by the masks, allowing   naughty goings-on to naughtily go on!

All of these elements were contained in the ancient Roman party that was Hilaria, Roman laughing day,   this took place just after the spring equinox and lasted several days until the beginning of the New Year,  which was then April 1st.   Hilaria celebrated the resurrection  of the god Attis and his return to  Cybele  the mother goddess ( mother earth), there were games of all kinds including masquerades and those in disguise would play tricks on the unsuspecting.  Attis was fundamentally a vegetation god and thus represented the fruits of the earth which die in winter and are reborn in the spring. Cybele’s cult had elements of orgiastic rites , these had originated in the mountains of Anatolia but had then spread through the Greek and into the Roman worlds influencing the revels  connected with Dionysus and Bacchus.

Scotland has a  fools days known as Gowkie day for the gowk or cuckoo symbol used, the use of this symbol suggests a fool or cuckold and has intimations of sexual licence drawing on the pagan past. Today the day is much more likely to   entail the  pinning of  a sign to someone’s back   such as ‘kick me ‘ and watching the poor fool be abused by all and sundry .The use of the gowk or cuckoo symbol is perfect for both the day of foolish pranks and for the time of year. Cuckoos are summer visitors to Britain and the female is the laziest of mothers, she lays her eggs in the nests of poor unsuspecting pipits or warblers and thus fools the little birds into bringing up her offspring. It reflects the cruelty of the month as the cuckoo baby is often much bigger than her foster siblings and will edge them out of the nest where they will be unfed and die , while the cuckoo babies  will grow fat and flourish exhausting their foster parents. The cuckoo is a herald of spring arriving in late March and laying her eggs in April thus creating

the ultimate of  April Fools jokesCuckoo